Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages

Article excerpt

Dyan Elliott, Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). xiii + 350 pp. ISBN 0-691-11860-4. £16.95.

Dyan Elliott's new book, Proving Woman, examines the rise and fall of the female mystic in western Europe in the High and Late Middle Ages. Following on from Elliott's previous monographs - Spiritual Marriage (1993) and Fallen Bodies (1999) - this study is primarily concerned with the close relationship between holiness and heterodoxy. Drawing on a range of sources, including records of canonizations and heresy trials, manuals of confessors and inquisitors, theological treatises, saints' lives, and chronicles, Elliott sets out to explore why, towards the end of the Middle Ages, female spirituality became gradually but increasingly pathologized and criminalized. She argues that the procedures for proving both saints and heretics, the processes of canonization and inquisition, developed in parallel with one another, resulting in slippage between the two. As a result the sort of pious visionary women initially hailed as exemplary figures to be revered and imitated in the thirteenth century became increasingly subject to sceptical or overtly hostile scrutiny by the fifteenth century. Elliott is less concerned with medieval women as agents indeed she acknowledges that the narrative she constructs 'is largely a story of constraint' (p. 7) - or with 'the Utopian expectation of identifying an unmediated female voice' (p. 8), than with how sanctity and heresy were constructed and conceptualized in this period.

The introduction to Proving Woman sets out the scope of the study, giving clear accounts of the questions addressed, the sources examined, the limitations of the approach, and the overall shape of the book, which is structured chronologically. Chapter i begins with the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which was very much preoccupied with the Cathar threat, and which, with its emphasis on the sacraments of confession and the eucharist, played a major part in shaping female sanctity in the centuries that followed. …

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